Ernest Lehman: The Reluctant Screenwriter

The man who wrote West Side Story, North by Northwest, and The Sounds of Music has rebuffed all screenwriting offers for 13 years. Has Earnest Lehman become the J. D, Salinger of Hollywood?


HOLLYWOOD 1953. Novice screenwriter Ernest Lehman and veteran director Billy Wilder are struggling to wrench a movie script out of a play, Sabrina Fair, as Wilder's next production. Lehman, fresh from New York where he had been a journalist and press agent, and Wilder, famous in Hollywood for his feisty disposition, argue over just about everything. When Lehman refuses to write a bedroom scene between a middle-aged tycoon (who'll be played by Humphrey Bogart) and the dewy young chauffeur's daughter (Audrey Hepburn), Wilder calls him a "middle-class Jew." Lehman complains of being cold; Wilder counters by saying that he cannot work unless it is cool, so Lehman, who calls himself "antagonistically cooperative," retaliates by reporting for work bundled in overcoat, hat, and scarf.

When the film (now shortened to Sabrina) goes into production without a finished script, Lehman and Wilder are forced to write scenes hours before they are to be shot. Lehman suffers a nervous collapse. Wilder suspends production so that Lehman can recover under a doctor's care, but Paramount forces the issue: the movie, already way over schedule, must be finished within days. Lehman recovers virtually overnight. The writer goes on to win an Oscar nomination and begins to congeal the modus operandi that would prompt one colleague years later to remark, "If you looked up the term 'passive-aggressive' in a psychoanalytic dictionary, you'd find Ernie's picture."

Lehman boasts a resume few Hollywood writers can surpass. He wrote the original screenplay for North by Northwest and adaptations for Sweet Smell of Success, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, among others. But as famous as Ernest Lehman is within the Hollywood community for his remarkable body of work, he is also notorious for the much greater body of work he has turned down over the decades. And while Lehman may be considered a difficult man to work with (he's hardly alone in this in Hollywood), the real trick is getting him to work for you at all.

Lehman, whose last produced screenplay was 1977's Black Sunday, is constantly on guard against the moment when one of his Prominent Industry Friends nails him with the inevitable: "So, Ernie, what are you working on?"

Says Lehman, a wry, diffident, every-hair-in-place type who occasionally looks--and sounds--like a Jules Feiffer creation, "When somebody asks me an embarrassing question like that, I have to think to myself: how do I account for the last 13 years? It's like you need a cover story. But too many people do too many movies that they shouldn't because they can't stand not being in action."

Since his stream of '50s and '60s successes slowed to a trickle after 1972, when he produced, adapted, and directed a major debacle, Portnoy's Complaint, Lehman's output has consisted of co-writing assignments on three Oscar ceremony shows, two novels, occasional magazine pieces, and a published collection of essays based on acerbic columns he wrote for American Film. The prolific screenwriter who tops everyone's list for screenplay adaptations, the man who could thrust and parry with the best in the business, has become to movies what J.D. Salinger is to novels.

Samuel Goldwyn Jr. calls Lehman "brilliant, anxious, and frustratingly un-seduceable," after having been rebuffed by the writer on several proposed movie collaborations. "He is meticulous and particular in the extreme," says Robert Wise, director of four Lehman screenplays, who adds that "interesting, exciting material of the sort that attracts him just hasn't come along."

Perched on an antique barber's chair in his home in L.A.'s affluent Brentwood, where he and his wife Jacqueline have lived for 35 years, Lehman--wary and instantly likeable--listened intently to questions, then often asked me to precisely define my terms before loping into long, richly embroidered answers.

"With me, there has always been an element of 'If you stay down in the valley, they can't shoot at you,' "he says. "The minute you start saying, 'Hey, notice me,' you'd better be ready to be noticed. My tendency is to say no to everything. I wait until something sort of backs me into a corner where I find I can't say no."

Lehman perfected his character stance early on. "I would never even have an interview with any producer or director unless they said: 'We want him,' "Lehman recalls. "I would never see anyone as if I were auditioning. It would have been too painful for me to be turned down." Lehman, who describes himself at the time as "feisty, troublesome, and tenacious," outlines the cautious approach he's followed throughout his career: "I have to look for the dangers in a project. The decision to make a certain picture rather than to say 'no' to it is where the die is cast. Whenever somebody sends [material] to me, the first hat I always put on is the one of the head of the studio, and I ask myself, 'Should this picture be made?' In the '50s and '60s, I not only turned down projects but became very resentful when I read that someone was going ahead with it." He adds, with a laugh, "Don't they realize that if I say it can't be done, don't do it?"

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